July 16, 2011

Fickle Path to U.S. Citizenship

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Eight-year-old Ann George takes a photo of her father, George Varghese, a new citizen from India, during a June 24 naturalization ceremony at the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City.

Paul Hellstern/The Oklahoman

Eight-year-old Ann George takes a photo of her father, George Varghese, a new citizen from India, during a June 24 naturalization ceremony at the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City.

The path to U.S. citizenship was a quarter-century-long journey fraught with risk of deportation for Mexican-born Ernesto Rosas.

For Nigerian native Chiawalam, it was largely the luck of a lottery.

As of June 24, both can proudly call themselves U.S. citizens.

Rosas and Chiawalam were among about 90 individuals from 29 countries who successfully navigated the United States ’ complex system of immigration laws to be sworn in as U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony June 24 at the Oklahoma City federal courthouse.

The path through immigration to citizenship is never easy, participants said. For some, however, it is much easier than others.

Rosas said he was just 14 years old when he and his family slipped across the border into the United States in 1984.

Actually, he said he had to do it twice because he had a high fever the first time and had to go back.

Rosas said he went to junior high school and high school in California before moving to Oklahoma shortly before the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City . He now is self-employed and operates a landscaping business in Altus.

Rosas said he has been striving to attain resident immigrant and more recently citizenship status since 1987 — shortly after President Ronald Reagan approved a 1986 immigrant amnesty program. However, he said certain things about his case made obtaining approval difficult.

Rosas said he met and married his wife while she was a resident alien in the United States and the two invested their time and money in getting her approved as a citizen first — a process that moved along more quickly than what he had personally experienced.

After she became a citizen seven or eight years ago, Rosas said he was able to obtain his immigrant visa (green card) based on his marital status.

He then had to go through the required five-year period of demonstrating he would be a good citizen and taking tests to show he had knowledge of this country’s government and history before he could finally become a citizen.

“I entered the states when I was 14 and I’m fixin’ to be 40,” he said.

It’s not that Rosas is complaining.

“I’m blessed,” he said. “A lot of people have been through a lot more…. I’ll do it again if I have to. It’s worth everything that I’ve been through and worth every penny.”

Rosas said if he ever needs a reminder, all he has to do is visit the tough area of Mexico where he spent his early years.

“A lot of the kids I went to school with are either dead or in gangs,” he said.

While the road to citizenship was long and difficult for Rosas, Nigerian native Chiawalam said he was able to immigrate mostly through luck.

Every year, the U.S. uses a lottery system to grant 50,000 immigrant visas to residents of various countries with low rates of immigration to the United States through family-sponsored, employment and immediate family immigration programs.

“I was lucky in the lottery,” said Chiawalam, a student at Platt College in Oklahoma City.

Although luck got him his green card, Chiawalam, 35, said he still had to spend five years proving he would be a good citizen and passing the required tests before he was granted citizenship.

“I am really happy to be an American citizen,” he said. “It is not an easy process…. I’m going to school and struggling to survive.”

In some cases, foreigners are recruited to the United States to work in jobs where there are shortages of workers.

New citizen George Varghese, 40, said his family came to the United States in 2004 because his wife, Susan, was recruited to come here as a nurse. He has since become a nurse, himself.

Since his wife was recruited for a position where there was a shortage of workers, Varghese said his family was able to avoid the long wait of several years that many people from India have to endure to come to the U.S.

“The United States is a great country,” he said. “It’s a land of opportunities…. I am so thankful for this country and I will work and contribute to the nation and the community.”